Thursday, 25 August 2016


This morning I walked amongst the standing stones at Callanish. I was struck by the impression they made, and by the disjunct between that and what was on the information placard. Not that the information qua information was in-apt, but that what was striking and valuable to me about the stones was not something well articulated by the provision of such historical information and anthropological conjecture. (My observation was a variation on Wittgenstein's animadversions on Frazer.)

We call them 'standing stones'. It's worth noting this, I think. We don't say 'upright' or 'upended' stones. It doesn't capture the mystique. They are standing and in this, I believe, we see them under the aspect of the gravity-defying power of the animal. And because of their shape we spontaneously relate them in particular to one kind of animal: a human being. 'They stand there', one wants to say, 'like watchful sentinels'.

We may be drawn into speculating on the ritual uses of such stones, their alignments with celestial objects, etc. But much of what takes us even there is the impression they more directly make on us. They are like human sentinels, standing there - and yet they are of stone. They are of the mineral body of the earth itself, not subject to illness or pain or rash desire. They have this perpetual perdurance about them. About all this there is something comforting yet awesome, something which makes the vagaries and vicissitudes of our animal and social life more bearable, something quietening.

They are still and they point upwards to the sky above. Just through their shape - and let's leave aside speculation about the conscious intentions of their makers - and their circular arrangement they fulfil a 'sacred' role: to link the temporal and the eternal orders. They bring the balm and awe that comes when we see our lives sub specie aeternitatis. In this they are like vast columns in the nave of a cathedral, or the ancient sequoia of Yosemite. (But unlike the former are not man-made nor under a roof, so can link the resonant observer more directly with the cosmos; and unlike the latter are not subject to the vicissitudes of the living.)

You can't see it in my photo, but on the hilltop the stones are hemmed in by a sheep fence, and this automatically depletes their impact. Yet impact they still have, especially when seen against the hills and under the shifting skies, or when your body wanders amongst theirs, moving through whilst they stand there stock still.